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Gardening With Water in Mind

Gardening With Water in Mind

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Published by: glynis on Apr 17, 2012
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30 The Organic Way 187
riting a piece like this is every garden writer’snightmare. If I extol the virtues of all thedrought resistant plants I can think of andwrite about every known way to save water, then 2007is bound to be the wettest summer since records began.So much easier to write about how to grow squash orpeonies or to describe that lovely garden I visited oneperfect summer day last July. But water conservation isn’tonly relevant in drought years: a water-wise garden willsurvive the over-wet periods as well as the over-dry oneswith less intervention by you.In Goulburn, New South Wales, alloutdoor use of water is banned becauseof the extent of the drought there.A healthy respect for our own watersupplies shows a healthy respect forthese people, and millions of othersaround the world trying to grow foodwith less than abundant water.
 What do plants do with water?
So, what exactly does a plant do with all that water? Justhow much is necessary. and why? Well, broadly speaking,plants use most of the water they take up to transportnutrients from the soil to the part of the plant that needsthem. Much of the water absorbed from the soil is then‘transpired’ through the leaves in a process that is a littlelike humans sweating. A large deciduous tree can getthrough as much as 9000 litres on a hot dry day!Water evaporating from the leaves helps to keepthe plant, and the air around it, cool, and explains whygrass feels cool on your feet on hot days. Water is anessential component of plant growth. When combinedwith carbon dioxide from the air, during photosynthesis,sugars are produced that form the building blocksfor all plant growth processes. In fact, growth actuallyslows down on a hot, dry day. As the stomata (tinyholes on the leaf surface) close to limit water loss thisalso limits carbon dioxide intake and slows down thephotosynthesis process.Furthermore, plants stressed by too much or too littlewater are far more vulnerable to attack by pests anddiseases, such as aphids and powdery mildew.
 Water storage – in the soil
Your first step to a water-wise garden should be toimprove the water holding capacity of your soil. Waterstored in the soil itself cannot easilyevaporate and is instantly availableto your plants. Bulky organic matterimproves both the water-holdingcapacity of soil and its structure. Wellstructured soil is better able to hold onto nutrients and release them to theplants growing in it, so it’s good organicpractice on all fronts.Bulky organic matter does not needto be a rich fertilizer such as garden compost or wellrotted manure. In fact, these should only be used where
A large tree can transpire as much as 9000 litres of water on a hot, dry day.
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Adding bulky organic matter to your borders improves its ability to cope with flood or drought.
Adding bulky organic matter to your borders improves its ability to cope with flood or drought.
Gardening with Water in Mind
‘Using minimum-dig techniquesalso helps reducewater loss’ 
The Organic Way 187 31The Organic Way 187 31
feeding is necessary – too much of these nitrogen-richadditions is not recommended. Elsewhere, low fertilitysoil improvers such as leafmould or green waste compostare the best additions.Miraculously, a soil improved in this way will also havegood drainage and will be better able to withstand a rainyseason as well as a drought. Because the organic matterhelps to bind the aggregates in the soil (the sand, clay, andsilt) into larger lumps or ‘colloids’, the gaps between thecolloids are correspondingly larger, leading to improveddrainage. Any excess water then drains away easily sothe ground does not become waterlogged. But it is thisorganic matter that also acts as a sponge and soaks uplots of available water for slow release to your plants.
Retaining the water
Having improved your soil as much as possible on asmany of your beds as possible, including ornamental areas,vegetable beds, and around any fruit trees and soft fruit,you should turn your attention to retaining as much of that water as possible by slowing down evaporation fromthe soil surface. This means mulching.Lots of different materials are suitable; see the tablefor an idea of the advantages and disadvantages of eachtype. Some look better than others and some are more‘environmentally friendly’ choices. You must decide whatwill be right for your garden, but remember: any mulch isbetter than no mulch.Using minimum-dig techniques also helps reduce water
but cutting down on all soil cultivations such as hoeing.Try to do only what is necessary to keep the weedsdown – they’ll compete with your plants for the availablewater – as less disturbance of your soil means less of it isexposed to drying air currents.
Water-permeable landscaping fabricGreat for new beds, look goodwhen covered with gravel orornamental bark Difficult to apply to establishedbeds, non-renewable resourceCompost, well-rotted manure,leafmould, green waste compost,spent hopsFree or cheap resource, recycling,feeds and conditions soil as well asretaining moistureNeed renewing, may contain weedseedsNewspaper, cardboardFree resource, recycling, adds tobulky organic matter content of soilFunctional appearance, needweighing downFresh grass clippingsFree resource, recycling, adds tobulky organic matter content of soilCan burn delicate plants, use aroundfruit trees and woody shrubsComposted grass clippingsFree resource, recycling, adds tobulky organic matter content of soilStrawAvailable in large quantities, adds tobulky organic matter content of soilFunctional appearance, organic strawis very hard to sourceGravelLooks good, lasts foreverExpensive, may not be sustainablyquarried
Fit water butts to as much of your greenhouse as possible.Fit water-catching containers to as many of your buildings as you can.
32 The Organic Way 187
Harvesting water
Your next line of defence against drought should beto harvest as much rainwater as possible. Most waterauthorities now offer water butts at subsidised prices.You can also buy some rather smart wooden affairsfrom garden centres and online suppliers, or reuse anysuitable container you can get your hands on.Make sure all water butts are covered.This prevents any nasty accidents tochildren, wildlife, and pets; it stops thewater becoming a mosquito breedingground in the height of summer; itkeeps out leaves and other debris, andexcluding the light prevents the waterfrom turning green.Try to fit butts to every availabledownpipe on your house and garage; onsheds and greenhouses install gutteringconnected to butts. Most butts only hold around 200litres so you may need to connect several togetherto see your garden through a severe drought. If rain isforecast in a dry spell, pop outside and fill up as manywatering cans as possible from your butts – this leavesspare capacity in the butt for more water.More financially advantaged readers couldconsider installing underground storage tanks, takingrainfall directly from their roofs to an evaporation-proof container. We have one under the VegetableInspirations Garden here at Garden Organic Ryton.You can also install such tanks under greenhousestaging, as we have in our Paradise Garden.
Speaking of greenhouses, these can be one of themost water-hungry areas in the garden. Seedlingsare very vulnerable to ‘damping-off disease’ – acatch-all term for a variety of fungal infections that cankill an entire tray of seedlings in hours. Because of thisdanger, water seedlings with tap water only becausethe water company’s treatment willhave eliminated almost all pathogens.Once your seedlings are past the firstpotting-up stage, you can safely useharvested rainwater.Never place pots directly onyour greenhouse staging as muchof the water applied to them willsimply drain off. Invest in capillarymatting or gravel trays for greenhousestaging to prevent runoff whenwatering and to enable plants to access thiswater when needed.On the market are many automatic wateringsystems suitable for use in a greenhouse. These rangefrom inexpensive ‘watering spikes’ to entire systemswith porous hose and timers. Some can use harvestedrainwater or be connected to water butts. However,some need connecting to the mains, and this would beillegal during a hosepipe ban so think carefully beforedeciding which system to buy. Simple measures suchas putting plants in a spot that is shady at midday andmaking full use of gravel trays and capillary matting willreduce the need for watering.
32 The Organic Way 187
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Built-in water storage in Ryton’s Paradise Garden Alitex greenhouse.
‘Never place potsdirectly on your  greenhouse staging ’ 
Soaker hose enables you to make sure water goes where its needed.

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